One of Michael Smurfit’s earliest memories occurred just seven miles from Liverpool in the early 1940s where he lived as a young boy for a period. The city was under aerial assault, and even now, Smurfit can recall  sheltering in a cramped Morrison shelter during 1940 and 1941.

“The German bombing raids were terrifying… There would be 500 bombers attacking the city and the shrapnel flying into the sky to try and stop them was an unbelievable sight,” he recalled in his 2014 autobiography A Life Worth Living. He remembers “crying uncontrollably” when his baby sister Ann died of convulsions during the war.

Smurfit was only a young boy. But the memory of those nights stayed with him as he built the paper and packaging business founded by his father into the world’s biggest boxmaker. 

Smurfit has experienced almost everything in business – triumphs and setbacks, economic booms and slumps – as he turned the Jefferson Smurfit Group (today Smurfit Kappa) into Ireland’s first global multinational. In Irish business, Smurfit is one of the very greatest.

But when I asked him about the impact Covid-19 would have on Irish and world business, he immediately went back to his childhood and memories of war.

“What is happening today will destroy the balance sheets of countries,” Smurfit predicts.

“Trillions of pounds, euros and dollars will need to be thrown at this to keep the infrastructure of the world in place. Payback will be some time away. The terrible pity is this is happening just when Ireland was really getting back on its feet – this sets it back.”

Smurfit draws breath and explains the situation through the varying strands of his life and his career: “This is our world war. This is for my kids generation their world war. Hopefully we will all survive it.

“The only time similar was during the war years. We hunkered down. I was only five or six during the war years but I remember it quite well. You were restricted in what you could do or eat. 

“Today is different in some respects. You have your Sky television – with no new sport – but you at least have television and the internet. 

“It is not a total disaster not being able to move around. Communications can really help the elderly who are on their own. It is, all the same, very tragic what is happening. Families can no longer meet while we wait to get through this.”

A meeting deferred

I had been due to meet up with Michael Smurfit in his home in Monaco a couple of days after St Patrick’s Day. I had been there before in early April 2014, when I interviewed him over dinner in his home as a reporter with The Irish Times

Smurfit had just written A Life Worth Living, and he was an insightful and gracious host. The conversation ranged from daring corporate raids to bringing the Ryder Cup to Ireland – and much more in between. 

We had stayed in touch over the years, but had not had the opportunity to meet in person again, bar at his book launch in late April 2014 in the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School in Blackrock, named after him. I was looking forward to catching up; my plan was to discuss leadership, education and entrepreneurship, with perhaps a segue into the events of the day, or his investments in various interesting Irish startups.  

As the date loomed it became clear that the coronavirus was in Europe – if not then much in Ireland or Monaco. However, once the Irish government cancelled St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, we both felt it better to postpone. 

“Let’s defer until later,” Smurfit texted. At the time I thought this might not be too long away, but as the crisis tightened its grip it in the days that followed it became obvious meeting again in person was months away. It was time to speak on the phone instead.


Growing up: Dermot, Alan, Jeff, Michael, Kay and Sheila Smurfit.

Michael Smurfit was in his eighth day of self-isolation in his home in Monaco when we spoke. He lives in a beautiful apartment with commanding views of yachts nestled at berth in the Mediterranean. 

It sits overlooking some of the most hair-raising twists and turns of the Monaco Grand Prix, which this year has been cancelled for the first time in 66 years. Smurfit is walking briskly around his apartment as we speak. He is aware that, at 83, he needs to stay healthy. He takes his temperature daily and keeps his distance from his limited number of visitors.

“I am being careful. Staying fit and not going out. I am very impressed with the steps the Irish government has taken so far,” Smurfit tells me. “I imagine in time they are going to take people off the streets. Young people are still mingling and that has to stop. 

“We have seen what has happened in Italy and what is happening in Italy. It will take some time for it to reach the top there.” 

“But it could reach 1,000 deaths a day in Italy. We need to stop things getting that far in Ireland.”

When he was 20 years of age, Smurfit was confined for nine months to a sanatorium after he caught tuberculosis, probably from working in the damp conditions of his factory in Clonskeagh, Dublin 14.

Smurfit used those long months to read magazines like Fortune, Investor’s Chronicle and Forbes which his father would drop into him. He learned about Jim Slater, the ‘king of take-overs’ and other leading business leaders of the 1960s.

Smurfit also saw people die in the sanatorium. “This was when I first realised the inevitability of death, that it is only a question of ‘when’ not ‘if.’ When you understand that, you treat every day as if it is going to be your last, because one day you will be right,” he wrote in his autobiography. 

He went into the sanatorium fit and slim, but left pale and overweight. The lessons Smurfit learned there, however, stuck with him in his career. 

“The problem with this particular outbreak is not the same as when I was younger,” Smurfit says. “I am not taking away from the seriousness of what is happening but we should also be mindful it could have been worse. 

“It could have been the other way around where 80 per cent die and 20 per cent live. 

“I am in the most vulnerable over 80s bracket but at least I have no underlying illness or risk or pneumonia problems. I am in a relatively good spot if I get it.” 

He adds: “I don’t anticipate leaving self isolation soon. I have staff to help but they don’t come within 6 feet of me. We have to be very careful. I have not seen anything like this before in my lifetime.

“Smurfit Kappa is in a good space. They are a vital link in the food chain. You can’t ship without corrugated boxes.”

“There is very little one individual business person can do. This is a hidden enemy like we have never dealt with before. We will have to learn as we go,” Smurfit says.

He said that businesses would require support, and they would no longer be able to pay the state the same amount of tax they used to. “Vat and rates are going to stop being paid by many businesses in time as many will have zero income.”

Smurfit said it was important to maintain supply lines. He said Smurfit Kappa, the business where he was once chief executive, which is now led by his son Tony Smurfit, had an important role to play in keeping the world economy going.

“Smurfit Kappa is in a good space. They are a vital link in the food chain. You can’t ship without corrugated boxes,” Smurfit says. “As far as I know all their factories are still working and helping the world deal with a large influx of panic buying and emptying of shelves by consumers. It has a very important part to play.”

Smurfit said his son Tony was in Ireland at the moment, and like everyone else was in self-isolation. “Thank God we have great communications that allow businesses to continue on,” Smurfit says. “I know he will run his business as best as he can in the times ahead. Back in my time we didn’t have the communications to run businesses like we do today.”

Smurfit said business leaders were needed more than ever. “I think CEOs should be communicating on a weekly basis with staff. Writing to them. Keeping management aware of what is going on. Ensuring everyone is washing their hands,” he says.

“The virus is not easy to get if you really look after yourself. You can get it by touch or inhaling it. 

“If you keep social distance and continue to wash your hands on a regular basis it is hard for the virus to take hold. CEOs must communicate to their workforce that they have to do it. Keep them informed. This is not going to kill everybody but it is going to do a lot of damage to both the world’s health and the economy.”

“There are going to be a lot more deaths in America because it was not prepared enough.”

For 25 years, Michael Smurfit had an apartment on the sixty-first floor of Trump Tower. He lived two floors behind the man who built the tower, one Donald Trump, who was back then best known as a casino owner. Smurfit dined regularly with Trump who was a hard-working – if colourful – businessman in those days. 

I ask Smurfit how he thinks Trump is handling the coronavirus crisis. “I saw Trump saying on television that they are finding a cure for it. He has been giving people false hope since January, but then he says we knew it was a pandemic all along,” Smurfit replies. 

“There are going to be a lot more deaths in America because it was not prepared enough. They have a worse healthcare system than Italy with fewer hospitals per head and respiratory machines. They don’t have a tradition of free medicine like most countries in Europe.”

What will happen to the economy? “A recession is a given. The question is, is there a depression? There will be massive unemployment that the government will have to support,” Smurfit says. “The Central Bank will have no firepower left eventually. All they can do is guarantee the banks that nobody will go bankrupt. 

“If governments run out of cash the banks and insurance companies won’t have a hope. This requires global action. It will be a serious few months for all of us. If we don’t lock down now we aren’t going to get out of this soon,” Smurfit said. 

“If one country locks down and the other doesn’t there is no point. Monaco for e.g. is surrounded by lots of different countries, some of whom are doing different things. America will be the last one to get sick and the last one to recover. They are ill prepared for what is ahead.”

At the top: Meeting Bill Gates in the K Club.

Smurfit said it was important that Ireland and other countries thought not just about the current crisis, but what happened afterwards. “I think there is a case for an advisory committee of people with knowledge and intellect from business. You can never get enough information. 

“It is something I would recommend for the government to consider. They have got doctors but this is an economic situation as well as a medical crisis. They have got plenty of health advice but they need to look to business to get some ideas.” 

“Dermot Desmond for example came up with the idea of the IFSC and that led to so much. Some ideas like that, that might help the economy recover might be worth gathering.” 

“This is an unrelenting disaster and a very unhappy time. The world is living in a very unhappy time.”

Smurfit said he expected a lockdown in Europe to last three months. “I hope I am wrong and it is shorter but it could be worse and it could be longer. I will be going stir crazy but this is what we have to do,” he said.

“Saving lives has to be the number one priority. Doctors will have to prioritise. They will have to decide who gets ventilators and who does not. Awful decisions will have to be taken by doctors. Some people will die.” 

“This is an unrelenting disaster and a very unhappy time. The world is living in a very unhappy time.”

Smurfit said Ireland needed to get a new government in place. “Leadership comes from the top,” he said. “But that said I have been impressed by what they have done so far. All the actions are being taken by all parties together. That bodes well.” 

He said traditional divisions needed to be put aside. “We need business leaders, community leaders, trade unions and associations to act in union for the good of the country. There needs to be solidarity.”

“Take the airline industry and all it is enduring. All planes are grounded. All the leasing companies are based in Dublin. Think of the airports,” he says.

“Is there life after economic death? Yes, but the question is what will the world be like? My prediction is it will never be the same again.”